Chicago’s long-standing bad rap on gun violence drew fresh attention in the first months of 2016 when early numbers suggested that the city was facing one of its worst homicide rates in years.
Throughout the decades-long debate over the city’s seemingly intractable gun violence problem, there's little consensus on what's behind the scourge; citizens have blamed everything from gang members to gun regulation to scrutiny of the police. In his new documentary, filmmaker Robert Greenwald suggests a different root cause: the NRA.
In the recently released "Making a Killing: Guns, Greed, and the NRA," Greenwald explores how the lucrative gun industry and the powerful gun lobby puts profit over people by scuttling legislative efforts to address even the most common-sense gun law reforms.
"There’s a profit motive here,” Greenwald said. "Many of these parents are paying a terrible price for it.”
The film eschews policy experts and talking heads in favor of those who have been directly affected by gun violence. Among them is Pam Bosley, a Chicago mother whose 18-year-old son, Terrell, was shot on the steps of his church en route to choir practice.
Bosley's name is one of several -- like Hadiya Pendleton, Jonylah Watkins and most recently, Tyshawn Lee -- that have become shorthand in national headlines for Chicago's gun problem. Yet the pervasive nature of the killings has done little to shift the national dialogue around guns.
Particularly in Chicago, Greenwald said the NRA and other gun lobbyists have long exploited racial stereotypes to shape perceptions of urban gun violence by talking in coded terms that tie the problem to “thugs” or “gun runners.”
“They talk about Chicago being the Wild, Wild West and there’s no doubt in my mind that there’s a strong racial bias that’s not stated overtly,” he said.
Father Michael Pfleger, the city's most politically active Catholic priest, takes exception to the way the NRA and its pro-gun sympathizers characterize Chicago's gun violence victims.
"Some of the things they say about our kids -- being gangbangers and whatnot -- it's unbelievable," Pfleger said during a March screening of the film at his St. Sabina church on the city's South Side.
The false narrative that urban gun violence is exclusively "gangbangers shooting gangbangers" is just a convenient excuse to not empathize with the problem -- and it lets people wave it off as unrelated to the efforts of the gun lobby, Pfleger said.
"The NRA has been a master at convincing people 'guns make you safer,'" he said. "Until we connect the dots that what happens on the South Side, or Newtown, or to Gabby Giffords can happen anywhere, anybody is a target."
Greenwald brought his film to Plfeger's church, where more than half of the attendees at the screening raised their hands when asked if their lives had been touched by gun violence.
"We want to connect personal pain with public policy," Greenwald said. "It’s important to connect them to the fact that legislation would have stopped Pam’s son from being shot on the steps of the church."
Bosley repeatedly has said that there was no accountability following Terrell's death. Last year, Bosley and the mother of another shooting victim filed a lawsuit against three suburban gun stores. They argued the stores don’t adequately regulate gun sales near the city-suburb border with Chicago, where gun laws are comparatively stricter.
"If her son had had an accident on a rusty nail, there would be more possible accountability," Greenwald said. "But a lethal weapon? There is no accountability. No legal or moral repercussions."
The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.
It’s hard to think rationally when your paycheck is written by the devil. Robert Greenwald, filmmaker
Outside of Chicago, Greenwald's film argues that people have lost their lives due to the gun lobby’s efforts to remove any hindrance to buying firearms. Because of the NRA’s opposition to firearm regulation — including gun storage laws or waiting periods — the film argues children have been injured in gun accidents, domestic violence victims have been killed by abusers, and overall, everyone has easier access to deadly weapons.
"In any one of these tragedies, in any one of these incidents, take away the gun and look how different the situation is,” Greenwald said.
Data indicates that the NRA remains so steadfastly successful in its mission that even the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults in the 2012 Newtown school shooting couldn't slow its efforts. Nationwide, states actually trended toward weaker gun laws in Newtown's wake.
"The NRA has made us think they are all-powerful. Really, they are just the mouthpieces of these companies that have the money to buy members of Congress," said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has an F rating from the NRA on pro-gun issues.
Fledgling and struggling politicians are especially susceptible to the NRA’s powerful draw, Greenwald said.
"If you're a politician and you align with the NRA, you know you’re going to be well-funded and you’re going to have passionate people behind you," the filmmaker said.
"It’s hard to think rationally when your paycheck is written by the devil," he added. "Not that money explains everything, but the money certainly does distort one’s perspective.”
The famously secretive lobby wasn't always that way, Greenwald said.
"A shift happened around 1971 or 1972; there was a sort of a takeover by a more radical faction," Greenwald said. "Instead of hunters and conservationists, [members] were lobbying for the gun companies."
The film names Wayne LaPierre, the CEO and executive vice president of the NRA, as one of the gun advocates who orchestrated the shift. (Greenwald noted LaPierre and other NRA leaders were “not really interested” in talking to him about the film.)
Greenwald said he hopes the film, which can be screened for free, will help build the kind of momentum that eventually prompted life-saving regulations in the once-untouchable tobacco and auto industries.
"The solutions are so varied and so simple in some cases that it’s truly mind-boggling," Greenwald said. "We’ll look back on this, our grandchildren will look back on this, and wonder that this even existed."